From Russia with Love (1963)

From the looks of things, Bond movies are like Bond girls, there’s a fast turnover. Little more than a year has passed and already Bond is on another mission. Then again, when you’ve got an entire backlog of Ian Flemming novels to pool from, I suppose the only heavy work you have to do on these films is to shoot the darn thing. That being said, as quick a turnover this film is, From Russia with Love is far from a rehash of Dr. No. There’s enough new, different and interesting here for the film’s not to simply be quick cash-in as many films end up being with such a fast turnover.

However, a lot of the elements of Dr. No are still here. James Bond (Sean Connery) is off on another mission if international important, this time it’s to snag an encryption coding machine used by the Soviets and Tatiana (Daniela Bianchi), a beautiful secretary who works at the Russian embassy in Istanbul. But what Bond doesn’t know is that the entire setup is a complex trap ingeniously constructed by SPECTRE, an evil organization bent on world domination.

The film opens with Bond sneaking around in the dark, stalked by Grant (Robert Shaw), a SPECTRE agent poised to kill when the time is right. It’s an effective suspense piece, but more importantly, it sets up the idea that the greatest thread in this film is the unknown. As the audience, we are in a key position to know everything, unlike Bond who cannot see Grant. The film plays on this as our perspective allows us to see Grant stalking Bond, giving some otherwise banal and mundane scenes a sense of tension.

However, the next scene, as good as it is, undermines the opening sequence of the film. The mastermind behind the plan is revealed as a brilliant Russian chess player. He outmaneuvers his opponent, anticipating his reaction, which results in his victory. In the same way, he expresses the reason the game will work is that he’s thought of every possible reaction to every SPECTRE move.

By starting off by revealing SPECTRE is behind it all, the film shows its hand. Think of how more effective it would have been if we were kept in the dark, not sure what was going on and who Bond should trust. Instead, the film clearly presents all the players, who they are and allows us to easily compartmentalize the characters. Bond may not know, but we do, which makes the film a bit of a letdown. Let us follow Bond and share that tension of uncertainty.

However, I still don’t know where I stand on the Bond character himself. Sure, he’s a likable, suave spy working for the good guys, but he still seems far more preoccupied with women and it’s clear he only takes the job so he can woo Tatiana. Both are playing each other, but the film doesn’t explore this element enough. There could be a fascinating and dangerous game, wooing each other and using each other, but instead Tatiana just seems to fall head over heels for him after the first kiss.

But it’s unclear if Bond himself is in love. He’s certainly doesn’t have any kind of inclination of going steady. Whe he’s called in on the case it’s while he is “visiting an old case,” which summarizes his objectification of women perfectly. Plus, later in the film he ends the feud between two women who love the same man and ends up having a threesome with them. That doesn’t strike me as the kind of man who commits to just one woman.

I think the film would have been better if he had to choose between the girl and the mission. Being Bond, he can, of course, get the girl and complete the mission without much of a problem, which makes for an inherently less tense and engaging viewing experience. How much more exciting would it have been if Tatiana was in peril danger while the bad guy was making off with the Soviet encryption machine? Bond can’t pursue both. He’s either got to save the girl or do his job. That, my friend, would be a Bond film I could get behind.

That isn’t to say this is a particularly bad film. If anything, the film does an excellent job of crafting a lot of great moments and employing a lot of fantastic visual composition to add conflict and tension to the film. It would have been better if there was actually more conflict in the story, but I do appreciate the visual storytelling that From Russia with Love uses, making it clear that the filmmakers reworked this story with the medium of film in mind, something a lot of literary adaptations fail at (especially the ones with voiceovers).

However, I think they went too far in making this a visual story and took out a lot of the fun, playful dialogue that was to be found with Dr. No. I didn’t find this film nearly as charming or as funny as Dr. No because they cut out a lot of that great wit and cheesy dialogue. There are smatterings of it, the film relies a little more on visual gags, but when you have someone as suave as Sean Connery, you should give him as many great lines as you can.

Instead, the film is much more interested in the action set-pieces which are bigger and better. Dr. No had some well-crafted sequences, but these are a lot more memorable, some for their inherent implausibility, others for their spectacle.  Whether it’s a fistfight in a tightly enclosed space or an explosive getaway, the set-pieces are fun, well choreographed and have satisfying payoffs. Action may speak louder than words, but I still want my suave dialogue.

From Russia with Love does a weird little shuffle. With the visual storytelling and the action set-pieces the film takes a step forward. However, the way the story is presented to the audience and the downgrade in witty dialogue is a step back from Dr. No. It’s a different kind of entertainment, less of the classic talkie fun and more of the spy action stuff. Personally, I’m more of a listener, but From Russia with Love certainly has its own merits.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing

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3 Responses to From Russia with Love (1963)

  1. edgarchaput says:

    Bond is not attached to many people. He simply doesn’t live the sort of lifestyle for which a steady partner is much of an option. He lives life on the edge, where everything happens fast, even the women. That in turn makes the films On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Casino Royale all the more interesting.

    Completely disagree about the fun and the dialogue. I think both are far better here than they were in Dr. No. Connery looked more relaxed in the role too.

  2. I love this Bond film, but it took me a couple viewings to come around. Initially, I was disappointed that it wasn’t as gadget based as some of the later films. When I re-watched it last year I was struck by how good of a straight spy movie it was and I really enjoyed it. The fight on the train is one of the best filmed hand-to-hand fights ever (not including martial arts film).

    I did a marathon of the series myself last summer, but it was before I had the blog. Good luck making it through them all if you’re not a big Bond fan!

  3. edgarchaput says:

    That’s what is so fantastic about this one, the fact that they made it more of a spy film than a straight up action film.

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